I Hide My Chocolate

Midlife observations

Tag: Death

I Did Not Know The Boy Who Died This Week

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Go Deep

I did not know the boy who died this week. The friendly, athletic, well-liked 23-year-old from our town. My kids are in different grades than his younger siblings. They play different sports and hang out with different people. I am woefully unconnected with the school and the town. I’m not unsociable but I am quiet and reserved and I work full time in Manhattan. I worry that my introversion is off-putting and has kept my kids from being more integrated with the community. I prefer smaller groups of family and close friends, so my path did not really intersect with him and his family.

I did not know the boy who died this week. While I thought about him and his mother and his father and his sisters and his friends and all those who were touched by him, I did not feel I had a place at the wake or the funeral. I don’t know this family. But they are part of my world. I feel like I could know him. He could have been any number of amazing, interesting, fun 20-somethings that I do know. With full lives ahead of them. I guess he was out with friends. I suppose alcohol was involved. I am sure he thought he was invincible. Don’t we all at 23? It could have been anyone. It could have been my child.

It takes some living and some near misses to learn that accidents do happen. I could die at any moment. You could die at any moment. My children could die at any moment. As babies, I held them close. Nursing, co-sleeping, baby-proofing. “Never let them out of your sight,” our pediatrician said, only half-jokingly when we asked him for the most significant things we could do to keep them safe. Well, that’s not realistic.  And so we have lived our lives. We put them on the school bus. We sent them on sleep-overs and on school trips. We taught them to ski and take risks and be independent. My daughter drives and my son will soon drive. Off they go. Out of the nest. More out of our sight these days than in our sight. As it should be. And yet, I grasp. I want to hold them close. I want to live forever. I want them to live forever. I never want to let them go.

When they were young, I thought being the mother of a newborn was the hardest thing I had ever done. The exhaustion, the worry. Are they eating? Are they pooping? Are they BREATHING? The mothers of children older than mine would smile indulgently. “Just wait. It gets harder.” What? What could be harder than a newborn?! Now I get it. Now the worries are: Are they safe? Are they happy? Will they live full lives? Will they love and be loved? For many years. For many years, long after I die.

I am a very cerebral and sensible and pragmatic person. Skeptical of the mysterious and unproven. Crazy hokum. And yet. Is it? Crazy hokum? I am fascinated and increasingly open to my intuition and the deep experiences I have had with meditation and Reiki. On Wednesday night, I was drawn to take a yoga class with Colleen Saidman Yee. I don’t know her very well, and I am not a regular student of hers, but she recently published a book, Yoga For Life, that is touching me right now. At Savasana, she said something like: “Dare to go deep.  Deep to the places within. The places that frighten you. The places that you touch and scurry away from.” I tried, but not much happened. Still, I knew shifts have been and are happening.

That night, returning home, the streets were blocked for the wake. The one I didn’t attend because I did not know the boy who died this week. We detoured around to my house. My home. That night, I woke. For my middle-of-the-night battle with my bladder. Should I get up and pee or can I make it through the night? I lay there. And saw something. Felt something. A presence. I laughed. Now I am seeing ghosts? I went to the bathroom and felt the night. Felt the presence. Who was it? I decided it was my mom. Who else would it be? Then that night I dreamt I had siblings. I was talking to my “sister.” She was 17 years older than me and she told me that we had two other brothers. Wow. A whole family of people I never even knew I had?! And then I dreamt I was flying! I was terrified of the sensation. It was exciting but terrifying. I touched the sensation and then scurried away, waking.  Afraid to go too deep.

Today, blessed weekend, I took one of my regular yoga classes with one of my yoga friend teachers with my yoga community in my yoga “home.” Heart-openers. Damn you Clare. As I lifted and expanded and breathed into my heart, I thought about the boy I did not know who died this week. And his mom and dad and sisters and friends. And I suppressed tears. Convulsive sobbing tears. I touched that space and scurried away. I wanted to shout to my yoga friends: A young man died this week! I am so sad!  But I didn’t. I went deep but not that deep.

There is a video montage of photos of this boy I did not know who died this week. I watched it. It could be my family photos. Beautiful human beings doing family things together. I saw him grow from a boy to a young man.  I cried. Cathartic heart-opening tears.

A young man died this week! I did not know him. And yet…I do know him.

Go deep. Love deeply. Live joyfully. We all die. And it might be sooner rather than later.

Image:  4th Mandala Heart Chakra, by Jennifer Christenson

Losing People

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Losing Friends

I am not a Trekkie, but I watched a lot of Star Trek episodes growing up. In the old days, when there were only four channels and you had to watch what was on when it was on whether you wanted to or not, it seemed like Star Trek was frequently the only tolerable option. So I watched a lot of Star Trek episodes growing up. I wasn’t a big fan. But I did like Spock. He was intelligent, honest, loyal, and funny. Kind of like my husband. Hmmm. I’ll have to give that some thought.

The funny thing about watching all those episodes growing up is that even though I wasn’t a big fan at the time, I am now very nostalgic and appreciative of the campy costumes and plot scenarios. So ridiculous now. So inventive then. Perhaps because I am not a Trekkie (Oh. Wait. Maybe I am!), I have loved the recent movies, non judgmentally and with no expectations. Star Trek Into Darkness was one of my favorite movies of 2013. That was the year my son and I went on weekly movie dates and saw just about everything a 13 year old boy would want to see. Sucked into the movie from the opening inferno scene, we were both a bit shocked when I started sobbing at the scene where the friends press their palms together. The important cameo by Leonard Nimoy was a thrill, for this child of the 70’s. He seems like he was a wise, kind, funny, wonderful human being.

And so, I am sad. Another important person in my life has died. The third in three weeks. They say deaths come in three’s. Well, this is my third. After the death of my mother, life seems precious and fragile and too easily taken for granted.  When someone dies, it hits me hard.

I am not a business person, but I have a career in the media business. (Oh. Wait. Maybe I am a business person!) I would force myself to read business journalism, because I thought I should. For my career, you know. It was dry and boring and I had to read each sentence twice to retain the information. And then I discovered David Carr. Every Monday, he tackled the exact most relevant topic that was top of mind in media and made it compelling. Clean and honest prose, he said what he thought and revealed who he was in his writing. He loved print and embraced digital. The print world lost their champion when he died. Monday mornings with the New York Times are not the same. I am sad.

When I first moved to New York, I had my first job in the media business and had given up my dreams of being a ballerina. I didn’t know anyone, so I found friendship and familiarity in a nearby ballet studio where I took classes with other accomplished but amateur adult ballet dancers. I met Elaine at this time. She was older than me and in love with ballet. She was not a great dancer, but she had a gentle elegance and genuine curiosity and kindness for all the dancers, both the children and the adults. She was a constant touchpoint for me during that difficult year, transitioning to a new job and a new city on my own. She was a friend, though I don’t think I appreciated it then. I met my husband and stopped dancing, too busy with that career in business and raising our children. When my daughter was 7 and it became time to introduce her to ballet, I enrolled her in a different nearby ballet studio. And there was Elaine! We reconnected, though I was too busy busy busy to really resurrect much of a friendship. I returned to ballet again for a few years, but found it too challenging, both physically, emotionally, and logistically, to keep up with ballet. So I let it slip. As I let slip my friendship with Elaine. She passed away 3 weeks ago. You never think you’re never going to see someone again.  I am sad.

I didn’t know Leonard Nimoy nor David Carr.  But I did know Elaine.  Your lives touched mine and you are part of me. I honor you with deep love and appreciation.

Live long and prosper.

 

Crying With Strangers

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Beautiful Tears

According to the buzzy factoids that bombard my FaceBook feed, there are three types of tears: basal, reflex, and psychic, the emotion-based tears. Psychic tears have a chemical composition that includes protein-based hormones that function as a natural painkiller. That is why it is such a cathartic release when we are able to cry.

Beautiful tears

I cried a lot when my mother died. I was so sad to see her die. I was so honored to be with her when she died. But it was and is my father’s overwhelming grief and anguish that breaks my heart. This from the awkward and undemonstrative man who never cried. Like the Swedish farmer joke, he loved his wife so much he almost told her.

Stop the tears

After she died, I had to return to my busy busy life, making lunches, pleasing clients, doing laundry. You know, the important stuff of life. My family, my friends, my colleagues offered genuine sympathy, hugs, love, and support. I was surprised and so, so moved at the outpouring from all walks of my life. But I didn’t cry. Even though I was sad, it felt like it was time for her to go. Even though I felt her loss, it was a relief.

Stranger tears

Then one morning on my way to work, I ran into a casual acquaintance on the street. When I told her that I had recently lost my mother, she wrapped me up in a big bear hug. I cried. I hardly know her! Somehow the spontaneous hug and this sense that she knew deep in her soul what it was like to lose your mother brought out the release. After that, everything set me off. Arranging for donations to my mother’s alma mater, I cried speaking to the young woman on the other end of the phone, a stranger who was probably a current college student, as I told her the story of  how extraordinary my mother was, earning her Ph.D. in 1950.

No tears

I am still holding it together when I’m with my most loved ones. Why? Too embarrassed? Afraid of judgment? Am I not allowed to cry? Afraid I will fall into an uncontrollable abyss? After all, my days of being depressed are behind me. I am not going back there. But. Shouldn’t we be able to cry with the people with whom we are most intimate? Why do we put up our guard? The risk of vulnerability is greatest with the people who know us best. If we didn’t have good emotional role models then there is even more reason to perfect that suit of armor. It is through writing and journaling, yoga and meditation that I feel I can peel away the layers of armor and reveal my hidden self, emotions and all.   When I reveal what is hidden, I connect.  It is these moments that remind me that we are all connected and that the love between people can occur anywhere. With all the complicated bonds and history behind family relationships, perhaps it makes perfect sense that honest, emotional, spontaneous connections are easier with strangers. Maybe the delineation between family and friends and strangers needs to soften. How can we change the habits and patterns grooved into family life so that honest, emotional, spontaneous connections can happen with family and friends?

Allow the tears

This Christmas, I want to be more open and emotional with my loved ones, showing them my heart and giving them my love. Love is what is sacred and holy. Merry Christmas. May you shed beautiful tears.

Photo Credit:  Deep thanks to Rose-Lynn Fisher for the use of her beautiful photo of beautiful tears, Tears of Grief.

 

The Breath

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Good-Bye Mom

Dying is a harrowing experience for the ones not dying. I wonder what it feels like to be the one who is dying? What was she thinking? Anything? What was she feeling? Pain? Fear? Sadness? Relief? I hope and pray it was like slipping into Savasana. Please let it be so.

On Saturday, I called the hospital to see if I could get a more clear idea of what was happening with my mother. My father had been providing contradictory information to me for the last few days and seemed frighteningly unsure. The case worker got on the phone and said, quite clearly, “You need to get here today.” Well then. It must really be time. I arrived in the evening. She was having trouble breathing, so they were administering morphine, which reduces pain but also reduces the panicked sensation of not being able to breathe thus slowing down the pace of breathing in and breathing out. Morphine was all she was on at that point, having been transitioned to palliative care. It was the end. I spoke to her and held her hand but she was quite out of it. I debated spending the night at the hospital, but my father was so upset and confused that I decided to go back to the house to be with him.

In the middle of the night, not sleeping, I thought about what I wanted to say to her. The time was here. No time to hold back. But I didn’t have anything to say. The desire for questions and regrets and what if’s was gone. I didn’t have all my questions answered. I didn’t tell her everything. But it didn’t matter any more.

When I was very little, my mother read out loud to me. The first books I remember her reading to me were the Winnie the Pooh stories. It occurred to me that she might be able to hear me and to be more aware of what was going on than I realized so I combed through the house looking for these old books and found the books of poems by A. A. Milne, When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. I left my sad and exhausted father at home and arrived early at the hospital Sunday morning.

I spoke to the doctor who was mercifully kind – so kind – and clear and blunt. She is dying. It will be soon. There is no hope. We will make her comfortable. (An infection due to complications following a hip fracture led to sepsis.) Doctors: we are overwhelmed and beg you for your clear guidance. Overcome with guilt and doubt, wondering if we should do more, it was a bitter relief to be told that there was no more to do.

Left alone with my mom. I gazed at her, my beautiful old frail mom who I have been mourning for so long. The vibrant and exceptionally accomplished woman who I knew as my mother had faded many years ago.

I began reading. The matter-of-fact tone and silly language of the poetry was so familiar and so enjoyable. I read a poem. Paused and sat quietly.   Held her hand. Read another poem. Took another break. And so the morning went.

I offered her Reiki. I don’t really feel like a “certified” Reiki practitioner. It always seems mysterious and slightly ridiculous for a card-carrying intellectual to find such comfort in Reiki, but if ever there was time for me to have faith, this was it. I felt the energy in my soul and I offered it to her, praying that it ease the transition between the physical world and the spiritual world.

This is what I said to her that day:

I love you Mom. You can go now. I am happy. You don’t need to worry about me. I will take care of Daddy. You are the best mom. It is because you are a good mom that I am a good mom. I have two amazing children. Thank you. I love you.

Later that afternoon, I brought my father to the hospital. He was overcome, broken-heartedly exclaiming “Oh Sweetheart!” It broke my heart to see my stoic father lose his beloved sweetheart of 54 years. She was more agitated, less comfortable but more alert. She opened her right eye half way and stared and stared and stared at each of us. We just gazed in each other’s eyes. She drifted out of consciousness and we took a dinner break. We returned that evening and she seemed quite out of it. The lovely nurse assured us she was aware we were there and was calmer when we were there. So we sat quietly holding her hand. After about an hour, she breathed out and did not breathe in again. Then her breath returned. Not for long. Gradually, her breath faded away.

I love you Mom.

 

Before You Die

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Dear Mom,

How well do we know our mothers?  As children, we focus on our own survival and development.  Our mothers support this behavior, desiring us to be happy, safe, and loved.  Our mother’s life before us is mysterious except as it pertains to our own personal development.  Our mother’s life after we grow up and leave home is a sidebar to our more interesting-to-us life, at least until her life makes the shift to requiring us to take care of her, to take notice of her.  Or until we realize that every essence of our being is infused with every essence of her being.  Learning about her, we learn about us.

When I was told that my mother had been brutally stabbed by her second husband before he killed himself, I was a young girl.  Too young to fathom this fact.  And so I did not.  Occasionally I would tell the sensational story to garner a reaction from a new friend.  It was a scintillating factoid that I thought made me interesting.  For the most part, I did not think my family was very interesting.  We did not fight.  There were only three of us.  We diligently pursued our activities and goals, with little demonstrative emotion.  This isolated nugget of sensation – that we never talked about – seemed so unbelievable and out of character that eventually I questioned its truth.  Did this really happen to my mother or am I making it up?  What did she do with the fear and emotion?  How has this event shaped her life, my life?

As my mother turns 91 this year, living…surviving another year, I am reflecting on her life and the end of her life.  I feel urgency to know what I can of her before her mind fades, before she dies.  How much more time do I have with her?  For her 90th birthday a year ago, I made the pilgrimage home to visit with her.  I set up the visit to have time with her, to ask her the questions I have never asked.  So much is unspoken.

  • Are you happy?
  • You are so successful, why did you end up with men who were self-centered and abusive?
  • How did you fall in love with Dad?
  • Is there anything you want to say to me?
  • What do you hope to be remembered for?
  • Would you do anything differently?
  • What advice to you have for your granddaughter?
  • What does it feel like to be at the end of your life?
  • Are you ready to die, afraid to die?
  • Do you believe in God?

I mustered up my courage to ask the questions and vowed to keep probing instead of sinking into docile silence with the first answer I got.

My mother was born in 1922.  Her father, a physicist, dropped dead suddenly of an aneurism when she was just 7.  She told me how every morning she went to her father’s room to say good-morning.  Clearly there was a special bond between him and her.  On the morning after he died, she was not allowed into his room.  She never saw him again and grieving was not tolerated.  What a devastating loss for her!  Her mother was a no-nonsense, undemonstrative woman who then had to hold the family together in the Depression.  She took on boarders, taught school, and did not have a lot of time for my mom.  My mother was painfully shy, sad and lonely, and was homeschooled because school was socially challenging.  Although she was drawn to art and more introspective and creative activities, she was encouraged to pursue science and academia.  She was good at school so she just kept going to school.  Kept going until she received her Ph.D. in 1950 – an unusual accomplishment for a woman in 1950.  But it was a more passive accomplishment than I realized.  She didn’t know what else to do with herself, so she kept going to school.  Her first husband was a fellow graduate student.  I am not sure what broke apart that marriage other than youth.  Her second husband had a history of drug addiction and mental illness.  My mother was discouraged from marrying him, but she went forward with it anyway.  My father once said to me, as I was embarking on my own marriage, as if to explain the mystery of attraction to himself, “You can’t help who you fall in love with.”  What a destructive act of self-sabotage on her part.  It did not end well.  I don’t know much more than that.  There is still a shroud of “don’t talk about that” in our house.  It took several years of therapy for her to recover from the violent attack, from the violent betrayal.  She moved to Washington and met my father.  He thought she was beautiful.  She loved being loved.  They married in 1961 and I was born in 1962.  She was desperate for a baby, for the family she did not have.  The story of my birth is told by my parents as if it was a miracle.  I was delivered by emergency C-section (her life-giving scar always fascinated me).  We both almost died.  Post miracle, she was felled by post-partum depression, rejecting the baby she so desperately wanted.

How did she recover from this post-partum depression?  What impact did her rejection of me have on me?  How did her trauma carry over to me?  My main sense of her as a mother is that she was very devoted to me.  She adjusted her work schedule to be home for me.  She spent a lot of time with me: reading together; teaching me how to cook, sew, do algebra; going to the ballet together.  She thought I was wonderful and gave me a lot of freedom to explore my interests.  Indeed, I could do no wrong.  I remember very few instances when she got angry with me or set limits for me.  But there were significant ways in which she was absent.  She was not physically demonstrative.  Very little hugging happened in my childhood.  The only times I remember my mother touching me were when I was ill.  I managed to be ill a lot.  All sorts of maladies kept my mother hovering over me, from hypoglycemia to migraines.  These illnesses kept me home, were an excuse for me to avoid.  Avoid parties that made me shy, avoid deadlines that seemed insurmountable to my perfectionism, avoid living in all its messy imperfection.  When I was sick, I was allowed to move into her bed where she would lie next to me, reading out loud or watching bad tv sitcoms and game shows endlessly.  In her desire to love and nurture, she neglected (or was unable) to model what a powerful and effective woman was.  Bereft of her father, abused and abandoned by her second husband, she did not know how to stand up to my father when he was boring, compulsive, remote, abusively inflexible and insistent to her, to me.  She and I stuck together, forming a strong mother-daughter bond built on a love of all things female (Jane Austen, Mary Tyler Moore, tea sandwiches at The Birdcage) and a suspicion of all things male (money, sports, confrontation).  But her desire to give me freedom meant that she was absent as a parent in many key ways.  She was unable to help me negotiate an effective father-daughter bond where I could articulate who I was, what I thought, and say no in a constructive way.  My inability to establish a sense of self with boundaries meant a string of intimate relationships where I lost my sense of self and had to end them, and hide at home, in order to regain my sense of self.

The summer after high school graduation before I went to college, my mother assured me that she was prepared for my departure.  Her composure at such a life-changing transition was so strange to me and not what I wanted to hear.  I wanted to hear that she loved me and would miss me.  Some kind of honest and emotional dialogue.  It was not to be.  When my parents dropped me off at school, my mother broke down sobbing uncontrollably.  I had never seen her cry before.  I had never seen her cry before!  How strange is that?  My beautiful, successful, brilliant scientist mom broke down.  It was my fault.  I never really recovered and spent college dealing with my inability to separate successfully and feel confident in my self.

After college, I never went home again.  The only way I could separate and create a sense of an independent self was to leave.

Simultaneously, my mother had a recurring benign growth in her throat.  This growth prevented her from breathing.  The surgery required to remove the blockage from her airway, damaged her vocal chords, preventing her from speaking.  As I was finding my voice, my self, she was losing hers.  How I wish I had an audio recording of my mother’s voice before the surgeries!  Ever so gradually, over the next 30 years, my father and I spoke for my mother, over my mother, depriving her of chances to speak her truth.  As she stopped speaking, she stopped remembering.  Speaking one’s truth, speaking one’s stories grounds us, establishing who we are.

Now, in her 90’s, faded and fading, she sits and reads or watches tv.  My father meticulously cares for her physical being, desperate that she not die and leave him alone.  But her self is locked inside the shell of her body, less and less able to express itself.

On the rare occasions when I visit her, because I am busy busy busy with my more interesting-to-me life, she lights up with complete joy at seeing me.  Even though she can no longer walk easily, she travels back in time to her role as an active mom – forgetting her walker in her eager enthusiasm to cook for me or care for me in some way.

In answer to my timid questioning, she whispers her regret about her life and her advice to my daughter, her granddaughter.  They are the same:  “Be more sociable.”  She whispers that God is unknowable, “too mysterious,” and last but not least, “I am so lucky to have you.”

I love you Mom.  Happy Mother’s Day.

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